1. Focus on the Now
At one time or another, the prose-inclined among us have all written out a multiple page backstory for our character. We think it’ll be good reference material that the GM can use for inspiration. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. GMs are busy, they’ve got all the other players to worry about, they don’t have time to pore through a backstory novella.
Knowing your character’s backstory is great, but you should be able to condense it into two or three sentences and still be interesting. That’s short enough for the GM and other players to work with. They won’t feel like you’re giving them homework.
Rather than waiting around for elements of your character’s backstory that may never show up, use that backstory as a jumping-off point for whatever’s happening in the game right now. That way everyone at the table is equally aware of what’s happening and more likely to be interested.
Imagine your elven mage was thrown out of the academy for her unconventional theories. Instead of obsessing over Professor Arch Nemesis and hoping the GM will bring him up one day, use that story to color how this elf acts in play. Someone so devoted to her ideas that she’s cast out of wizard school will have strong opinions indeed.
2. Use Your Character Sheet
The character sheet is more than a collection of numbers. It’s the GM’s first tool when crafting a story. Experienced game masters like to personalize each session. We see that you’ve put ranks into Pilot, so we assume you’ll want to fly stuff around, and we plan accordingly.
Beyond skills and stats, character sheets usually contain extra entries that say something about who your character is. In Legend of the Five Rings, these are advantages and disadvantages. In Fate, they’re aspects.* More than simple numbers, they provide opportunities to hook your character into a story. You can be damned sure the GM will use them.
With that in mind, only put stuff that interests you on your sheet. If your game is one of those that gives you points for taking flaws, choose ones that will be fun to play up. Don’t take True Love if you don’t enjoy love stories in roleplaying games, even if it gives the most points. Your GM will see it and think you’re interested in a romance plot, and then where will you be? Go with Sworn Enemy instead, because you’ve always wanted a personal nemesis!
Flaws are particularly easy for GMs to use, because everyone loves a story of needing to overcome personal weaknesses. However, positive traits can serve as good story fodder too. Particularly, ally or connection type traits can be used to tie your character into whatever plot is happening. If you’re not sure who to align with, ask the GM. They’ll have some ideas.
3. Tell the GM Your Plans
Every once in a while, we all have the urge to spring some surprise plan on the GM, just to knock them out of complacency. Do not do this. If you’ve got a big plan in the works for what your character is going to do or what you’d like to see happen, tell the GM about it. Preferably, tell them with some advanced warning.
For one thing, trying to pull a “gotcha” on the GM is bound to end badly. If the GM thinks you’re trying to pull one over on them, they’ll take a defensive posture, and then your chances of getting to do what you want are nill. Letting them know ahead of time keeps a line of communication open and makes sure everything stays friendly.
For another, if the GM doesn’t know about your plan, they can’t arrange things to make it work. Any GM worth their salt welcomes PC input and will try to facilitate it. Let’s say you hatch a complex plot to make yourself daimyo of the local castle. It’s a great plan, except it requires the current daimyo’s NPC advisor to turn traitor, and the GM’s original plan called for him to be an honest and virtuous man. If you only reveal this plan halfway through the session, then it’s too late for the GM to change anything. On the other hand, if you’d told them a week ago, they could have adjusted the advisor’s moral leanings toward what you need them to be.
Of course, a good GM will always try to roll with events in real time, but why take that chance? If something’s important to you, set it up in advance. Nothing is gained by hiding your plans, and this way you can become a full partner in the story.
4. Link With Other Players
Three, four, or even five other players are at the table, all vying for attention. Since a session can only go for so long, there’s limited spotlight time to go around. Instead of competing with your fellow players, you must unite. You have nothing to lose but your critical failures!
If another player tries to do something, back their play. Make your character involved in their action. GMs will prioritize plotlines with multiple players involved. It’s more efficient. This might sound obvious, but unless the game is an old style dungeon crawl, players have a strong tendency to wander off on their own. There’s probably some important psychology behind it, but the bottom line is you should resist this instinct.
Make your character interested in someone else’s problems. This is your ally, your comrade in arms. Surely your hot shot pilot isn’t going to stand by while the ship’s captain is court-martialed? You’ll knock a few heads down on the flight deck until you get testimony to help the captain’s case. Or you might even oppose each other, so long as everyone is on-board and communicating what they want. That way the GM doesn’t need to create a villain.
Involving yourself with another player’s story has several advantages. First, more screen time, yay! Second, you’ll get to interact more with your friends, which is theoretically why you’re playing in the first place. Third, the other player will remember and hopefully return the favor next time you attempt something.
5. Talk to NPCs the GM Likes
While a GM tries to love all their NPCs equally, they’re always going to have favorites.* Some are just more fun than others, and finding out which those are will be a boon to you. If you engage with an NPC the GM enjoys playing, it gives them added incentive to shower you with screen time.
Figuring out your GM’s favorite NPCs is easy. Sometimes they’ll out and tell you, saving you a lot of work. With a more reticent GM, pay attention to anyone they keep making excuses to bring up or that they roleplay with extra enthusiasm. If all else fails, you could even ask. As you may have noticed, GMs like to talk about their game.
As a GM, this advice is a little self serving, but it has a legitimate purpose, I swear! NPCs are the game master’s primary avenue for influencing the world, and better NPCs mean a better story. GMs enjoy playing the NPCs they have a better handle on. If players engage those NPCs, everyone will have a better time.
Ideally, the GM will make their favorite NPCs the most important ones and do this work for you. But we’re not perfect! Sometimes we don’t realize which NPC we enjoy the most until halfway through a session. Players will earn serious brownie points for helping us out.
6. Find Something You Care About
Nothing will sabotage your story more than wandering aimlessly through the game, waiting for something to catch your interest. The GM will do their best to make things interesting, but you’ve got to decide you care. Find something that looks interesting and latch onto it.
If nothing immediately presents itself, start asking questions. GMs love answering questions about their world, so they’ll probably oblige you. If you’re playing a college professor in the middle of an interstellar war, you might feel like none of the shooting is relevant to your academic interests. Instead of giving up, look into the origins of the war, dig through the history until you find something relevant.
Once you care about something, the GM has a doorway to let you into the story. There might not be justification for taking the college professor on a raid against enemy positions, but what if those positions are built atop the spot where the war first started? Then your character would have an interest and an ingame reason for going.
This is good for you, the other players, and the GM. When players step up to improve the session, everyone benefits. Roleplaying games are collaborative by their very nature; not even the best GM can make a game fun if the players don’t participate. Actively taking part is everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s privilege.